January 20, 2003—the scheduled date of elections that existed on Palestinian Authority letterhead alone—passed with the incumbent presidential candidate nearly imprisoned in his offices in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Several weeks earlier, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat candidly told reporters that he craves a few minutes every day in the sun. With the Israeli army surrounding his compound, he only ventures outside when shielded by a bevy of journalists.

Arafat’s most well-known challenger, the outspoken professor Abd al-Sattar Qasim, also spent Election Day 2003 trapped at home in Nablus. The town was enduring yet another days-long, 24-hour curfew, this one announced “by order of the military governor,” in a throwback to the years before the Oslo “peace process.” All over the West Bank and Gaza, potential Palestinian Legislative Council candidates were in various states of confinement at home, in town or in canton due to the Israeli army’s overwhelming presence in the Occupied Territories.

The international drafters of the plan for Palestinian elections may have initially intended a vote to shore up the power of the disintegrating Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leadership. But the actual inability to make the poll happen has only highlighted Palestinian impotence and the complete fragmentation of meaningful international diplomacy in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “There is preparation for holding elections whenever possible,” says PA election commissioner Ali Jarbawi. Members of the commission continue to meet regularly with diplomats to request technical help, but mostly to ask them to pressure Israel to allow the elections to go forward. The army’s restrictions on Palestinian travel are so onerous that the commission itself has met only once, doing the rest of its work by video-conference.

Good Intentions

While the idea of a vote in the Occupied Territories was not wholly imported, its prospects did not take off until the European Union voiced support. Looking for new ways of reviving talks between Israelis and Palestinians at a time when Israel was rejecting the Palestinian leadership out of hand, European officials met with Israelis and Palestinians in February 2002 to propose two ideas: Palestinian municipal, legislative and (if desired) presidential elections, and a declaration of Palestinian statehood to be supported by the rest of the world.

A Palestinian official who participated in the talks said that the Europeans were fed up with various American proposals for “cooling off” the conflict. “The Tenet and Mitchell plans — they didn’t even want to hear the words.” Instead, the EU wanted to convince the Israeli public of the Palestinian commitment to peace. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s main concern was that the “peace camp,” as he put it, might not win free and fair elections. Reassured by Palestinian officials that the secular mainstream remained the only real game in town, the EU forged ahead.

While the Palestinian team was pleased with the prospect of European intervention, they had their own reservations over the plan’s details. The official surmised that Arafat himself was not likely to declare a state on the truncated areas under his control because “Palestinians would lose their leverage” against Israel. Who was to guarantee that statehood would ever extend to the more viable 1967 borders, in line with international law? Analyst Khalil Shikaki was also skeptical that a Palestinian statehood declaration retained significance for the Palestinian public. “Most Palestinians no longer see the state itself in a positive light,” he said, “especially because of the fragmentation and what Palestinians go through every day at the checkpoints.” Still, the PA endorsed the EU plan, if only to pose a counterpoint to the increasingly pro-Israel interventions of George W. Bush’s White House.

Not unexpectedly, the US administration was at first nonplussed. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insisted that peacemaking efforts should “keep the focus right now on the need for Chairman Arafat to take steps against the violence,” and that to “divert the attention from this focus doesn’t really move the situation forward.” Israel also nixed the plan, speaking through Shimon Peres, then foreign minister. “What concerns me is that there not be a rift between America and Europe,” Peres said. “Europe is going to support Arafat and so I always suggested our line be against terror and not a person or people or religion.”

But the Europeans were determined to press ahead. Then the Arab world’s overture for a comprehensive peace with Israel, the extensive Israeli incursions into Palestinian refugee camps and subsequently into all of the West Bank, and diplomatic missions by US envoys Gen. Anthony Zinni and Secretary of State Colin Powell took what became known as the “French non-paper” off center stage.

Executive Authority

When Arafat was finally released from his first long period of confinement after the Israeli invasions of spring 2002, he was met by a host of demands. Not only was Israel demanding “reform” of the PA before negotiations could reconvene, members of Arafat’s own cabinet were furious about his mishandling of power during the dark days of Operation Defensive Shield. At the first cabinet meeting, minister Nabil Amr angrily attacked the leadership’s decision to convey diplomatic and media messages through unelected Palestinian officials. Amr resigned his post, despite Arafat’s promise to initiate internal change. Later, the ex-minister was asked if he was calling for presidential elections. Amr said tactfully, “If there are elections, [Arafat] must also be included. The difference [between us] is over the timing and historical caution President Arafat feels towards change.”

Inside Fatah, Arafat’s faction within the PLO, the push was on for reforms in both the direction of the intifada and general Palestinian governance. Many Fatah members called for elections to replace the faction’s aging old guard. Simultaneously, the sight of armed PA security men being hunted down by Israeli soldiers had exposed the interim government’s weaknesses and left Palestinians feeling vulnerable and insecure.

Arafat commenced upon a sudden flurry of executive acts. His first move, on May 14, was to sign a law guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary. In a speech delivered before the Palestinian Legislative Council on May 15, the Palestinian leader took responsibility for “any mistakes that occurred.” He also promised to cut the number of Palestinian ministries from 30 to the legal limit of 19, and made his first commitment to hold elections the following year.

The Bush administration began to echo Israeli calls for “reform” of the Palestinian Authority, with Bush himself repeatedly averring that Arafat had “disappointed the Palestinian people.” In one press conference, Bush commented that Palestinians “did not even have a constitution,” a statement met by a reporter’s retort that neither did Israel—or Great Britain.

When Arafat finally did name his cabinet, which centralized security control as the US had requested and put a technocrat in charge of the public purse, the Israeli military was fast on his heels. Nine hours later on June 10, Israeli tanks had once again surrounded Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters. Standing in Washington next to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush said nastily that, anyway, “no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government.”

“With that kind of attitude, when there is prejudgment, then there is prejudice,” replied newly named Tourism Minister Nabil Kassis. But in some ways, Bush’s words rang true. Just days after the PA embossed the presidential seal on the judicial independence law, the executive refused to release Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat from a Jericho detention site, despite the orders of the Palestinian High Court. Saadat, wanted by Israel for allegedly ordering the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, had been detained for months without charge.

Arafat had also finally signed the Palestinian Basic Law, long since approved by the Legislative Council but left moldering on the presidential desk for years. Critics noted that the statutes had expired in 1999, along with the interim period of the Oslo agreements. It seemed that Arafat was trying to keep the chimera of his own office alive with sleight of hand. “I personally have no illusions,” Gaza lawyer Raji Sourani commented wryly.

Democracy vs. Reform

How was the EU-Palestinian prospectus for Palestinian elections transformed into a new US policy of overturning the Palestinian leadership? Accounts of the dramatic changes made to Bush’s now infamous June 24 speech tell of major last-minute alterations and scant State Department input. The results, however, were unequivocal: “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror,” Bush declared. “I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts.” Well into the speech, Bush desultorily asked Israel to withdraw its troops to pre-intifada lines and to stop building settlements. Twenty-four hours earlier, Israeli tanks had once again invaded Ramallah, bringing almost all major towns in the West Bank under at least partial Israeli military control.

Self-declared presidential candidate Qasim immediately asked Bush to stop attacking the Palestinian leader. “I sent a letter to the White House complaining that President Bush was campaigning for Arafat and prejudicing the outcome of the elections. It wasn’t fair,” he remembers.

While some have speculated that Arafat wasn’t keen on elections himself, a Palestinian official says now that Arafat always welcomed a vote. “There is no reason why he would be hesitant politically. It is useful for him; it has no risk,” the official shrugged.

After Bush’s speech, however, the Palestinian leadership made a show of preparing itself. On June 26, spokesman and negotiator Saeb Erekat held a well-attended press conference to announce the “100-Day Plan”—2,500 words in English dedicated to restructuring ministries and security branches and paving the way for elections. By no coincidence, Erekat’s presentation mostly mirrored the initial understandings among the “Quartet”—a working group on the Middle East with high-level representation from the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations.

The Quartet had grown out of the EU’s attempts to release the peace process from the grip of Washington. Its efforts were two-pronged: first, it was working on a public declaration of its intentions for Palestinians and Israelis and second, it was keeping abreast of then-secret security agreements being hammered out by EU intelligence officers on the ground. But the Quartet’s “road map” met with the private derision of Palestinian and Israeli officials. Israeli officials made fun of the document’s call for the completion of 13 important tasks before December, when Palestinian and Israeli officials were to hand in their comments on the first draft. Palestinian officials paled at the road map’s second step, the “appointment of a Palestinian prime minister.” Pointedly, the Quartet’s draft excluded mention of Palestinian elections in January. While elements of EU diplomacy remained in the plan, they were subordinate to Israeli security concerns and Washington’s mercurial judgment.

The omission of January elections betrayed yet another policy reversal by the Bush administration. As soon as it became clear to the White House that general elections would not overturn Arafat, the US began to stall on its promise to support a democratic process. State Department representatives Elizabeth Cheney and David Satterfield vocalized the new stance to Palestinian officials at a meeting in Paris in August. “We heard a tone that they were not really enthusiastic, or at least that the date was not good,” says one official present at the talks. From that point, Palestinian officials were nearly certain that no elections were in the offing.

To Cease Fire, Or Not to Cease Fire

The other Quartet project—monitoring the progress of European security overtures—became abruptly public on the morning of July 24, after Israel dropped a one-ton missile in a packed Gaza neighborhood to kill Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, head of the military wing of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Along with Shehadeh, 14 others were killed, including three women and nine children.

Palestinian officials were furious that the bombing had scuttled a deal between Hamas and the PA to stop attacks on Israel for a limited period of time. Those ceasefire talks had started as a European effort, when British intelligence officials saw the opportunity to ride the tide of dissatisfaction after spring incursions. Fatah grassroots leaders were each asked to sign on to an agreement to stop attacks inside Israel proper. Knowing that an assassination could jeopardize the whole project, each was asked to promise not to retaliate even if Israel killed a cadre. The proposal was the source of rancorous debate, but many Fatah leaders supported it, believing that attacks on Israeli civilians were sacrificing the two-state solution to a more radical goal.

But while the EU added prestige and seriousness to the talks (unconfirmed reports even had them committing money), in the end, only the US could close the deal. “[The Europeans] cannot get the Israelis to stop this policy. They want to, but they cannot,” said Muhammad Dahlan, former head of Gaza’s security services. Israeli officials were periodically debriefed on the talks, but Dahlan believed that “the only people who can control the Israelis are the Americans, and the Americans have yet to interfere seriously and deeply in the peace process and even in the security issue.”

Secretly, however, the US has been involved in the attempts at brokering a ceasefire. Palestine Report’s Mark Perry reported on “indirect messages” exchanged in early September between a senior US envoy and a select number of Hamas officials. “The US envoy told intermediaries that the US welcomed Hamas’ decision to become ‘a legitimate part of the political process’ and, in exchange, he pledged that the US would make its position known to the Sharon government,” wrote Perry. “Moreover, he said, he would go even further. He would advise the Sharon government to ‘let the process work.'” The contacts, however tentative, broke a standing policy banning talks with Hamas as a terrorist organization.

But while the US is willing to make contact with Hamas, it remains unwilling to pressure Israel to give the ceasefire talks traction. There has been “encouragement from the Egyptians, the Europeans and Saudis, even the Americans about the chances of making this succeed,” minister Nabil Shaath said in a December interview. There have been no “really full commitments, but promises that if Hamas commits itself, then all of these parties will do their best to get the Israelis to reciprocate. The issue today is the credibility of the promise of reciprocation. Things are not really looking very good.”

On January 24, the ceasefire talks will arrive at their conclusion, at an Egyptian-sponsored summit in Cairo for factional representatives from both inside and outside the Occupied Territories. On the table is a document, written by the head of Egyptian intelligence, that includes both a commitment to stop all armed attacks for one year, as well as acknowledgement that the PA is the sole body in charge of administering affairs and preventing military attacks on Israeli targets in the areas under its control.

The chances of factional agreement over these two very thorny issues seem close to nil. The Egyptians have said that either everyone will sign the document or no one will, with the blame falling at the feet of the spoiler. Still, many are pleased that the talks are taking place. “This is important because of the grave dangers that will arise if war is waged on Iraq,” said delegate and PLO executive committee member Hannah Amirah. “Palestinians will need to run their affairs wisely and not give Sharon any excuses to undertake catastrophic reprisals against the Palestinian people.” The flip side, of course, is the public exposure of the PA’s incapacity — how often does a government ask political parties to affirm its supreme control? Hamas is buoyed by the international attention, and its leaders are clearly basking in the opportunity to demonstrate their legitimization.

“Things We Can Control”

But, as Shaath points out, the Palestinian leadership has very little else in hand to show that it remains both a peace partner and a legitimate political force. “We are working on things that we can control now. We are working on the constitution, we are working on Palestinian reform, we are pursuing a dialogue with Hamas to stop all violence between each other’s parties and stopping all violence against civilians, we are engaged in a process of persuasion of the rest of the Arab world and international community to keep the hope alive and to try to push the American-sponsored road map to become the Quartet’s commitment. These are the things that we are doing now.”

Nearly all of the “reform” projects have now failed. The 100-Day Plan has long been discarded. The ceasefire is on shaky ground. The road map has been postponed at Washington’s behest until after the January 28 Israeli elections. Sharon, for his part, referred to the Quartet’s road map as “nothing” as the polls approached. Of course, there were no Palestinian elections.

That leaves the constitution committee, headed by Shaath. Every day, the press carries his statements that the document is only days from completion. So far, law in future Palestine is based on Islamic sharia law, an announcement that has caused concern for the Christian minority. Unlike most other Arab women, Palestinian mothers will pass on their citizenship to their offspring. These announcements obscure more fundamental issues: the borders of the state, already circumscribed by the rapidly constructed wall infringing on the West Bank, refugee rights and the status of Jerusalem. Shaath’s official enthusiasm is mocked privately by another official who says that the constitution is nowhere near completion, and that the loud noises of finality are only meant for international consumption. Legislative Council speaker Ahmed Qurei’ also raised his eyebrows at the hurried draft. Writing a constitution “is not a priority in the current phase,” he said. The Basic Law will do Palestinians just fine, says Qurei’, until the occupation ends.

How to cite this article:

Charmaine Seitz "The Palestinian Elections That Never Were," Middle East Report Online, January 24, 2003.

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